Orthodox church is growing
STEUBENVILLE – It is very quiet and peaceful inside the Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church.
The faint sound of traffic can be heard on nearby Washington Street.
A visitor to the church can often find the Rev. Gregory Thompson sitting in a front pew praying or reflecting on his day as a jobs coach at the county’s Board of Developmental Disabilities.
On a sunny day Thompson might be found painting the church’s stairway railing with a volunteer.
The spiritual work comes naturally to Thompson and the physical work stems from his 20 years as a steelworker in Youngstown and Warren.
“I actually worked in the steel industry for 20 years before I became an Orthodox priest. I had worked at North Star Steel in Youngstown and then Thomas Steel in Warren. I was a millwright in the melt shop at Thomas Steel when a wildcat strike was called. I was out of work looking for a job and thinking about the priesthood. I was able to find work but found it interfered with my work at the church. I was talking to my pastor and was going for the second interview for a job. My priest told me to call our bishop who accepted my interest in the priesthood. He told me to call the seminary and within weeks I was attending our seminary in South Canaan, Pa.,” said Thompson.
“I talked to my family and they were very supportive. After I was ordained I was contacted by the priest of St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church in Mingo Junction who told me there was an orthodox church in Steubenville and one near Amsterdam who needed a priest,” Thompson said.
“The first two years I was driving here every week from Warren and would offer the Liturgy in Steubenville one weekend and in Amsterdam the next weekend. Then I was assigned to the Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church here in Steubenville and another priest was assigned to the church in Amsterdam.
“When I first came here there were 12 people at Holy Transfiguration. The parishioners would hold reader services in the church but there was no priest here for the people. But they came to the church and prayed regularly. The church was on the edge of closing. But we have been able to bring more people back into the church as well as converts and now have a vibrant group of 25 to 30 people in our church,” said Thompson.
“We have actually filled the pews on the main floor and have had people sitting in the choir loft. All by the grace of God,” observed Thompson.
“Sometimes the neighbors will stop by to visit if they see my car outside. The Franciscan nuns from the nearby convent will also stop in. And last week a parishioner and I were painting the railing outside of the church,” explained Thompson.
That hasn’t always been the case in recent years after the church pastor, the Rev. John Voytilla, died.
“Father John was actually my uncle. I had pursued the deaconate in our diocese and was ordained a deacon a week before Father John died,” related Thompson.
So through a series of developments, telephone calls and divine guidance, Thompson entered the seminary to pursue the priesthood and 18 months later was ordained a priest and is now pastor of the church many local residents simply call the Russian Church.
Since he has arrived Thompson has installed a sign proclaiming Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in front of the church.
“I hope in time we can put up a second sign designating the times of our liturgies,” Thompson said.
“This is basically a Roman Catholic community. And we have had a number of Catholics come to our church to visit and to participate in a service. And we have been welcomed into the community,” said Thompson.
“Steubenville is a blue collar town very similar to Warren. But you have many more churches in Steubenville than are in Warren. I was at the Dairy Queen recently and met a young mother with several kids. We started talking and she asked what I thought of Steubenville. I told her this is a very baptized community,” Thompson said.
“This parish is 98 years old and it has history in the community. The church was founded by Russian immigrants and in 1970 we were granted self governance by the Russian Church. We speak English during our services although there are a few times when the old language is spoken. We are now part of the Orthodox Church of America,” he remarked.
“We have the same services the immigrants had 98 years ago, and the same services that were held in Russia 1,000 years ago. Today we have children singing in our choir and they also read. We are seeing more young people in the parish these days and that is encouraging,” stated Thompson.
“I wear my uncle’s vestments. I look at the altar server robes and see the names of boys who are now men. And today’s children write their names after Gary and Greg Repella. The robes don’t fit Gary today but he still assists me as an altar server,” commented Thompson.
“When I first came here I was standing in the front of the church and thought I could feel an indentation in the carpeting where the priest stands. Later on we had the carpet replaced and after they had taken up the old carpeting I saw the indentations were actually in the wooden floor where the previous priests have stood for so many years before me. That was a really neat feeling,” related Thompson.
“I don’t think of my 20 years working as a millwright in the steel industry as wasted time. I know what it is like to get up and go to church. One of my seminary teachers told me that my job as a pastor is to take burdens off the backs of people because they have enough to worry about. That is what I try to do,” said Thompson.
“We have services every Sunday at 10 a.m. Then we have church school and a meal in our church hall. On Wednesdays we have Vespers at 5 p.m., followed by a Bible discussion. We also offer services on alternating Saturdays at the Laurels and Carriage Inn. I have found the people of our parish and the community to be prayer filled and wonderfully friendly. No one has an agenda,” according to Thompson.
“We always invite our neighbors and the community to visit with us. And on Oct. 20 at noon we are hosting a pierogi dinner from noon until 3 p.m. We open our doors, we open our hearts and invite you to light a candle,” explained Thompson.
(Gossett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)